The Lagos National Arts Theater is an icon for everyone in my generation and a recognizable sight for those commuting between Lagos Mainland and the Island. The majestic structure, 19 km away from the airport, sits in Iganmu like a quiet mountain for the last forty-five years. It is an impressive edifice that most have only seen in passing, but somehow also one of the major attractions of Lagos. Many wonder what is really going on there. Now we know.
Eyes of a Lagos boy‘s visit to the National Arts Theater conducted by The Nigerian Field Society was an eye-opener. One of the Directors of the complex showed us around the building, he also shared the history and activities that took place there. The theatre still holds such treasure and memories. The beauty of that facility frozen in the 1970s is unmatched, even in its decaying state.
The staff of the National Theater have done a great job in keeping it clean, with two auditoriums still hosting conferences, dramas and events. The artworks at the complex remain in an amazing shape that fills everyone with pride. The complex runs at a minimal fraction of its desired capacity that feels like an induced slumber.
The National Theater is packed with the artworks of legendary contemporary Nigerian artists; stained glass walls by Yusuf Grillo, sculptures and murals by Lamidi Fakeye, Erhabor Emokpai and many others. It was put to full use for a month as one of the four venues of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, tagged FESTAC ’77, a major international festival held between 15 January and 12 February of 1977. The complex hosted 16,000 participants from 56 African countries and the diaspora in an unprecedented showcase of African music, fine art, literature, drama, dance and religion.
The commencement of the building was ordered in 1973 by the military government of Nigeria under General Gowon. The National Arts Theater was built and designed by Technoexportstroy, a Bulgarian company that built the Lagos theatre, mirroring the (smaller) Palace of Culture and Sports in Varna, Bulgaria. The popular claim that the National Arts Theater was designed to look like the late General Murtala Muhammed’s military peaked hat is only a grapevine coincidence.
The Lagos National Arts Theater was completed in 1976. The building is one of the largest and most beautiful of its kind on the African continent. It consists of a central hall with 5000 seats and a diameter of 52 meters, a collapsible stage that can be quickly rebuilt for concerts, meetings, film demonstrations and various types of indoor sports competitions, It also hosts a conference hall with 1600 seats, which can be used for various purposes and converted for banquets and cocktails, two large exhibition halls and two cinemas with 800 seats each.
The theatre complex has dressing rooms for 600 artists at a time, a garage for 150 cars, 80 offices, 4 coffee bars and a buffet. There is central air conditioning, indoor TV and radio systems, as well as booths with facilities for simultaneous translation of eight languages and hectares of lush green lawn around.
FESTAC 77 was hosted by Nigeria to set the tone of the cultural emancipation of Africa and creating a platform for its legion of talented artists. One of its aims was to promote black and African artists, performers and writers and facilitate their world acceptance and their access to world outlets. World-class superstars of the time flocked to Nigeria, Mariam Makeba, Stevie Wonder, Ipi Ntombi, Osibisa, Mighty Sparrow and a host of others that also paved the way for many American artists of 1980s who visited Nigeria to perform at the theatre such as Skyy, Shalamar, Musical Youth, Brothers Johnson, Dynasty, Kool and the gang and many more.
The National Arts Theater became a shadow of itself in the last couple of decades as if the world of arts had left it in its tracks. The economic downturn and mismanagement in the cultural sector, coupled with lack of maintenance did the venue in. The facility became the example of a failed project as performers had to look elsewhere to host their shows. The National Arts Theater was in a state of partial abandonment as it started failing. Power failure became a huge concern and there were stories of air conditioning not working so that audiences had to use hand fans.
The early 1990s to mid-90s saw the resurgence of events at the National Theatre when the Yoruba ‘home video’ cinemas were viewed at the venue. Gbenga Adewusi, Alade Odunewu, Ireti, Baba Suwe, Ogogo and several others showcased their arts at the venue. The influx of traffic of Nigerians to the theatre every weekend to watch movies at an affordable price became a thing, but it was accompanied by insecurity, muggings, car thefts and harassment by area boys. The area became a place one does not want to be around at night as it was simply dangerous. Piracy of ‘home videos’ finally killed the culture of theatre-going for many Nigerians.
Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who opened the National Theater as a military leader in 1976, proposed the privatization of the venue in 2001 but was met with stiff resistance by Nigerian artists and citizens. There have been different solutions proffered over the years to rehabilitate the theatre and to bring it up to date. One outstanding rumour was that the National Theater was sold to a Dubai company in 2014, which led to an uproar by Nigerians who suggested the theatre should not be privatized but be left in the care of the government and that it was public property.
Last week, the federal government finally approved a Central Bank of Nigeria intervention. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on 14 February, hails a new life for the Nigerian arts and culture scene. The renovation of the complex, according to the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele “would attract investment in the already booming cultural sector and can earn over 20 billion USD yearly from the creative industry and over one million jobs are expected to be created in five years.”
The CBN governor projected that the upgrade of the theatre will create a minimum of 10,000 direct and indirect jobs during its construction phase. This is in addition to the 25,000 employees that will be engaged in different sections of the monument when the ‘Signature Cluster’ of the building is completed. The Signature Cluster will consist of a building each for music, film, fashion and information technology verticals. The CBN through the Bankers Committee is willing to invest N21.8 billion to renovate the National Theatre, refurbish it, and run it profitably.
Critics of the planned Public-Private partnership call for the publication of the contract, which for now remains out of the public domain. Clarity on the destiny of the current staff is required, while it should also be ensured that the FG supports the arts in a broader sense.
As these positive steps are being taken to inject life into the National Theater, the world awaits expressions and arts that will blossom again.